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On this day in history in 1737, was born Edward Gibbon.
Gibbon was an author and historian who wrote The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, a continuous narration of fifteen centuries of history.
Edward Gibbon was born on 27th April 1737, at Putney, into a middle class family, one of 7 siblings and the only one to survive infancy. He attended a day school in Putney and, in 1746, moved on to Kingston Grammar School, and in 1749, he was admitted to Westminster School. Although his health was poor, he became an avid reader and records in his journals, that he ‘early discovered his proper food, of history'. In 1752, aged 15, he matriculated at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was disappointed by the lack of facilities for reading history, and turned instead to theology. His studies led him to turn to the Catholic faith, and he was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1753, thereby, under the laws of the time, debarring himself from Oxford.
His father, alarmed at the news, immediately dispatched him to Switzerland, to lodge with a Calvinist minister, the Rev. Daniel Pavillard. There he mastered the bulk of Classical Latin literature, and studied mathematics and French. Meanwhile, Pavillard worked on him and eventually convinced him to abjure his new faith, and he was readmitted to the Protestant communion in 1754. He wrote that he ‘suspended my religious enquiries, acquiescing with implicit belief in the tenets and mysteries which are adopted by the general consent of Catholics and Protestants.’ In fact, he had not rejected any articles of faith, either Catholic or Protestant, but had become disillusioned with organised religion and its functions.
In 1758, his father settled an annuity on him, allowing him to devote his life to study and writing. During the next 5 years, he read extensively and considered many subjects for a historical composition. He spent some time in Paris and in 1764, went to Rome, where he made an exhaustive study of the ruins and antiquities. On 15th October 1764, he wrote that while in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, ‘musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the friars were singing vespers’ that the idea of writing of the decline and fall of the city, first started to his mind.
In 1770, Gibbon’s father died, and after spending 2 years, finalising the estate, he set up house in Bentinck Street, London, and set his mind on Roman history. He also entered fully into social life, joining fashionable clubs and becoming known among men of letters. The first quarto volume of Decline and Fall was published in 1776, and was an immediate success. In some quarters, it was considered scandalous, in that it dealt with the great irony that, with the rise of Christianity, the Roman Empire collapsed. Gibbon did not say, in as many words, that it was Christian beliefs that destroyed the noble ethics of the Romans, but he implied that religion, organised on a grand scale, had a debilitating effect on civilization.
In 1781, he published the second and third volumes of his history, bringing the narrative down to the end of the empire in the West, and 1788, on his 51st birthday, published the final three volumes. Decline and Fall is comprised of two parts, the first half covering a period of 300 years to the end of the empire in the West, and the second half dealing with the next 1,000 years, while the Roman Empire continued with its capital at Byzantium. Gibbon argued that the fall of the Western empire was not the end, but that its corporate state continued, although suffering an asymptotic decline from the ideals to be found in classical literature. There are some contradictions within the narrative. Gibbons often confuses material decay with moral decadence, and asserts the morality of the Classical era, while ignoring its incipient decadence. He argues that the Roman Empire conquered the whole known world, ignoring the fact that his generation knew nothing of the world, outside of the Roman Empire. With all its shortcomings, the work provides a coherent and lucid insight into the workings of the Classical and medieval periods.
Gibbon returned to Lausanne to write his memoirs, but hastened back to London in 1790, at the outbreak of the French Revolution. His health declined, at a more rapid pace than the Roman Empire had ever done, and he died on 16th January 1794. Gibbon is buried in Fletching, East Sussex. [St Andrew & St Mary’s Church, Church Street, Fletching, East Sussex TN22 3SS]
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